Snot Otters To Be Proud Of

Some 50-60 folks (mostly from nearby Blacksburg I think) gathered in the damp gloom of the Rising Silo Brewery in the rain for the first gathering of the “Tap into Science” group.

The focal point was the Eastern Hellbender (or Snot Otter or Old LasagnaSides, or…) as presented to the group by Dr. Bill Hopkins,  a principal researcher on this creature in the southeast.

I learned a lot, the most encouraging of which perhaps is that the abilities to monitor and track the lives and health of this creature has come a long way since I took herpetology just after the last ice age.

Artificial nesting boxes (in the second video) are being successfully placed, occupied and monitored and individual adults chip-tracked. We will hopefully learn much to reduce the discouraging current losses of these largest of amphibians due to habitat changes and other causes that are preventing young from thriving.


Monsanto and Bayer to Consummate Unholy Union

Big Pharma and Big Ag have a baby. Not done quite yet but the contractions are closer and closer, and the Agent Orange – tinged water is about to break.

Now, if these 5 billion pound gorillas could concoct a way to own all the the world’s topsoil and oxygen and sell it back to us, they’d be in high RoundUp-ready cotton.

Bayer, Monsanto to merge in mega-deal that could reshape world’s food supply – The Boston Globe

Bayer and Monsanto: A Merger of Two Evils: TruthOut

Bayer to Buy Monsanto Creating World’s Largest Seed and Pesticide Company: EcoWatch

Heroin, Nazis, and Agent Orange: Inside the $66 Billion Merger of the Year – Bloomberg

Why Bayer’s purchase of Monsanto is so controversial. | New Republic

Bayer’s Takeover of Monsanto Would Create the World’s Largest Agricultural Supplier | VICE News

“These are companies that are hell bent towards developing a highly chemical dependent, pesticide and herbicide-dependent agriculture.”

My CO2 Melts 50 Meters of Arctic Ice


One of the most useful and fairly recent ways to understand the impact of human commerce and lifestyles on the biological and material resources and processes of the planet is to express that use in terms of a carbon or water or energy or soil “footprint.”

But up until now it has not been possible to express with precision the impact of human carbon footprints on Arctic sea ice. It’s one thing to have a number for your shoe size, but another thing altogether to know what you’re stepping on in the real world.

As you can see from the illustration in the Guardian, the consequences of my energy needs, transportation needs, and the externalized carbon production that results from the things that I eat, things that I purchase (CO2 production at the point of their manufacturer or growth and in their transportation thousands of miles to my front door or table) equates to about 50 square metres of melted sea ice each year. Keep in mind that on average, Arctic sea ice is about 8 feet thick. 

I’m probably not going to do the math, but thirty square meters down 8 feet (to get cubic meters) will melt due to my contribution to  greenhouse gas over the poles in one year. Then this volume of ice will become how many gallons of water to contribute to sea level rise? Multiply this volume in gallons times the average CO2 production per person in the developed world.

There is no denial that the human economic engine has contributed mightily to the far-reaching impacts of carbon dioxide rise over the past century. There is also no doubt that we can and must change the size of our usage-and-waste footprints.

Just knowing is  first step.

Your carbon footprint destroys 30 sq metres of Arctic sea ice a year

Main sources of carbon dioxide emissions | What’s Your Impact

What human activities increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? |HowStuffWorks


The Biology of Vocation


There was a time when, on this blog, I posted a couple of times a week about some new discovery from the natural world or about some oddity or creature feature that amazed me. That, after all, is who I am: a professional and professed tree hugger.

That crowd of former biology-receptive readers has wandered off elsewhere, so I don’t have so much to say about my private delight in the natural world, where even here on the back nine, I continue to marvel at what we learn and at what we still don’t know about the world of living things.

This study of the role of bioluminescence in deep sea sharks would have been something I would have researched  and offered in a summary editorial here at one point in the past. Some of these bio-musings would have gone on to become newspaper columns in the Floyd Press. Now, here’s a picture for you look at, and I won’t burden you with my oooohs and ahhhhs.

But I guess the point is that, coming from my reunion gathering just two days ago, I contrast my peculiar interests to those of so many of my classmates I spoke with. I don’t think I heard from anyone else who had found a profession in the natural sciences, and there were a whole bunch who had become engineers.

And let’s face it folks: engineers are wired differently.  I’m not saying they are weird, though some of course will be. They just see the world  through different lenses, and apparently each  had a passion early on that sent them into that profession. What? The power of measurement, the control over material bits, the beauty of design and implementation as a kind of industrial art?

And the language and perception that comes from that mechanico-technical point of view lets them see patterns (like the one on this chain shark) that others like me cannot see. And so, for those of us who have a more organic view of our shared ecology.

So, that’s all. Just thinking about where our passions and curiosities come from and the deep oceans or high mountains to which those early avocations drive us. And here we are, my age peers and I, looking back at that past through the fuzzy lens of baby-boomer eyes at how we came to be who and where we are today.

Mail-Order Mini-Brains

brain walkingOne of the most unforgettable books I read in grammar school–maybe the sixth grade–told the story of two people who “died” in a car wreck intentionally made to happen by “the bad guys.” The villains were evil scientists and the victims a good-science man and wife.

I forget the details but somehow their brains were harvested soon after the wreck, suspended in glass jars and connected to what we would now call a computer. By means of this connection, they could communicate and could exert some physical control over materials in their lab.

What they crafted, as memory serves, were eyeballs on a piece of muscle that allowed them to jump from place to place and spy on their enemies.

I think in the end they defeated the bad guys, reconstituted their bodies and reunited their brains with the appropriate skull and lived happily ever after.

I tell this longwinded tale because I only recently revisited it after reading that…

Scientists at Johns Hopkins have created “mini brains that have been generated from skin cells, which following collection from several healthy adults, were reprogrammed to embryonic stem cells and then induced to differentiate into brain cells. Each embryonic stem cell develops into a separate mini brain.”

These clumps of neurons are not brains at all, but it makes for good press .They are standardized clumps of brain tissue created artificially for the purpose of testing the effects of toxics and treatments on a large number of “subjects” who are not rhesus monkeys or lab rats.

Mini-brains will be available by mail order later this year. Shudder. If you see them with tennis shoes, that can’t be good.

Floyd Arts Dialogue September 18th

All are Invited to Floyd Arts Dialogue to Discuss: What Role Does Art Play in STEM?

STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. There has been much recent debate in educational circles from elementary to graduate levels to explore ways in which these vital disciplines can be better integrated with the practical outcome of equipping American students to solve real-world problems.

Will we better train the “hard” disciplines to create effective collaborative solutions to problems present and future if the artist’s way of sensing the world, of thinking and creating is part of the science-and-tech mix?

So the debate is STEM vs STEAM. Do the Arts belong here? What do you think? If you’re curious about where this conversation on society and education has moved already, you can jump in at the links below. Come prepared to share you thoughts and questions for the group at FAD on September 18, noon at the Jax.

STEM or STEAM? We’re Missing the Point | Vince Bertram


STEM vs. STEAM: Do the Arts Belong? – Education Week Teacher

Putting Art in STEM – The New York Times

Steam Not Stem | Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics

ARTSEDGE: Growing from STEM to STEAM

STEM to STEAM: Resource Roundup | Edutopia

All are welcomed to the Jacksonville Center to participate in this monthly FAD conversation, moderated by Fred First in the temporary absence of Charlie Brouwer, who will be creating an art installation out of state. First-time guests and regulars are welcome to bring a sack lunch and spend a casual hour in interesting discussion.

WHAT: Floyd Arts Dialogue September Meeting: STEM vs STEAM
WHEN: Friday September 18 at noon
WHERE: Upstairs in the Jacksonville Center for the Arts, Floyd VA
WHO: Anyone interested in learning and sharing

One Place Understood: Local Biology

This item is some three inches in length, to give you scale.
This item is some three inches in length, to give you scale.

So here’s one to end the blog-week: an unknown item of natural origin that many folks will have never come across.

Who will be the first to identify it correctly?

One notion that has occurred to me (when the Do-More devil is on my shoulder) is that I could pretty easily put together a “slide show” consisting of some number of familiar and unfamiliar objects from nature. A hundred  would not be beyond reach if beyond an audience’s sitting tolerance; 40 to 50 images with their attendant stories might be about right.

The reach could include wildflowers, ferns, mosses, trees, insects, spiders, and lots of somewhat odd details like this shot above. If you’re a regular here you have seen dozens of such shots and each is a story.

Beautiful (and other) Biology of the Blue Ridge: a photographic excursion into the bounty of living things from Floyd County, Virginia. Something like that.

This would be different than the “visual essays” I’ve offered over the past few years. I think such a program would be entertaining but also pleasantly educational. Not sure yet who the audience would be but probably the same civic orgs and friends of various libraries and maybe churches and PTAs?

The ultimate message would not stray far from my long-held conviction that if we are indifferent to the details of nature near home; if we cannot call our fellow inhabitants by name and appreciate their stories–then we will tend to be happily ignorant of and indifferent to the state of the natural world in our own back yards and around the world.

“One place, understood, helps us know all places better” said Eudora Welty.